Empowerment has become a new theme in Haywood Smith’s books.
After a painful divorce several years ago forced her to re-evaluate more than 25 years of marriage, the 54-year-old author hit a wall with her romance novels and instead began looking for an outlet for her mid-life angst.
She found it in a red hat.
The image came from Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning,” which boldly proclaims, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”
“That’s a perfect emblem of my generation,” Smith says. “I just feel like that poem is a declaration of independence for women in mid-life and beyond.”
Smith sought to capture that spirit in her latest literary effort, “The Red Hat Club,” a story more about friendship than fantasy, more rowdy than romantic. The book follows five Atlanta women who formed a social club based on the poem as they support one another through various relationship problems.
The story, fueled by the red hat symbolism, sends a strong message to women of the baby boomer generation, who are just learning to reclaim their lives in their 50s, Smith said.
“We were told that we could be anything, but (with) our role models, the message was marry well and raise a family,” she said. “So we were caught in that cross-current, and I think that really had an effect on us and how we responded in our lives.
“That conflict is a tremendous conflict in my generation, and I’ve written about that.”
Red Hat groups flourishThousands of women across the country had already adopted Joseph’s middle-age mantra as members of the real-life Red Hat Society, with almost 15,000 chapters around the country.
The organization revolves around the premise of women in the chapters — each headed by a Queen Mother — meeting for social events decked out in red hats and purple dresses. The colors are badges of honor for women over 50; ladies who haven’t reached that age are relegated to pink and lavender.
The Red Hat Society was created to empower women to age with pride and a sense of humor, said Debra Granich, the group’s vice president of operations.
“We really want to change the perception of aging women in the United States,” Granich said. “As we become older and older, we become more and more invisible.”
Smith, who learned of the society and became a proud member herself while writing her book, said women could appreciate the common empowerment themes of both.
“The organization really just struck a need and really hit at the right time,” Smith said. “And same with my book.”
Book doesn't necessarily reflect the groupBut “The Red Hat Club” — which remained on The New York Times list of best sellers for five weeks — has drawn mixed reviews from the society.
Granich said the obvious parallels between the novel and the organization, which explicitly has not endorsed the book, simply has confused the public. The story’s “cutting-edge” material, including frank discussions about sex and revenge, just don’t reflect the fun, light-hearted values of the Red Hat Society, she said.
“People are buying the book because they think it’s about the Red Hat Society,” Granich said. “We wish her luck, but she could have picked a better title.”
Carol Walker, 58, of the Adorable Fedora Belles chapter in Smyrna, Ga., said she personally enjoyed the book, but its protagonists, who schemed against one of the women’s cheating husband, represented a different approach to empowerment than what’s reflected in the society.
“Women definitely are empowered with the Red Hat Society, and I believe she (Smith) felt these women were empowered when they went after the husband with the mistress. But it’s really not anything to do with what Red Hatters are about,” said Walker, who described the characters’ actions as “vindictive.”
Smith said she hoped readers would feel empowered by the strong friendships of the women, above all else. “It doesn’t take away anything from the Red Hat Society at all; it celebrates it,” she said.
That was the message that resonated with readers like Iris Scheffel of the Royal Red Relics chapter in Decatur, Ga.
“It’s women supporting each other,” said the 62-year-old Scheffel. “Especially as you get older and especially in light of the fact that many women 50 and above are widowed or divorced, having that core network of friends is what carries you through.”